The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why colleges should ditch honor codes

Honor codes stifle collaboration and encourage cheating.


More than 100 Stanford University students in an introductory computer science course returned from spring break in March to find themselves under investigation for academic dishonesty. They faced a one-quarter suspension and 40 hours of community service for violating the university honor code, with infractions ranging from outright plagiarism to “unpermitted collaboration,” according to students in the popular Programming Methodology course. In an open letter to faculty and staff, Provost John Etchemendy lamented the “unusually high number of troubling allegations of academic dishonesty” during the quarter.

My daughter was enrolled in the class, but, thankfully, was not among the 20 percent accused of cheating. She easily could have been, though. “Unpermitted collaboration” is a fuzzy offense, particularly in a course whose guidelines encouraged students to share “ideas, hints, and debugging help, or problem-solving strategies and program structure” — practices designed to reflect the collaborative ethos of the software industry, which is built on free and accessible open-source code. At the same time, the professor forbade students from discussing specific lines of code.

Students who made every effort to follow the rules still ran into trouble. One freshman told me he was shocked to receive an e-mail informing him that he had violated Stanford’s honor code and wouldn’t receive a grade for the class. He had spent several hours talking through an assignment with a classmate who had fallen behind during a brief hospital stay. He never showed nor told her his code, but in one of the four programs on the assignment, her code matched his, a coincidence he attributes to the fact that he knew only one way to explain that part of the problem.

In an age in which collaboration and interpersonal skills are increasingly valued in the workplace, honor codes that rigidly define and punish “cheating” in classrooms have become impractical and antiquated.  Campus honor codes have been around nearly as long as higher education in the United States. William & Mary, the second-oldest U.S. college after Harvard, is widely credited with developing the first honor code, in the late 1700s, dictating the standards of ethical conduct for its student body. Since then, roughly 100 colleges have established formal codes setting strict standards on cheating, plagiarism, and other violations of academic integrity. But what constituted “cheating” hundreds of years ago, when exams focused on testing knowledge of basic facts, doesn’t necessarily apply today. In our modern world, when every known fact is readily accessible on the Internet, students are increasingly encouraged to collaborate on projects and share knowledge that inspires creative problem-solving. That kind of teamwork is valued in the working world but is undermined by outdated honor codes.

Not only do honor codes inhibit enriching collaboration outside of the classroom, but they also fail to curb actual cheating inside the classroom. Honor-code schools typically require professors to leave the room during exams, and they mandate students to turn in anyone they witness cheating. Few students are willing to carry that burden. At Stanford, just 2.5 percent of honor code complainants during the 2008-2009 academic year were students. A 2009 survey by Princeton’s student newspaper revealed that, of the 85 students who said they had witnessed cheating, only four reported it, according to the New York Times. And at Middlebury College, just 12 percent of students in a survey last year said that most students follow the peer-reporting requirement. A report on Middlebury’s honor code concluded that “peer reporting is nearly nonexistent” at the college and that “compliance rates are low” at honor-code schools nationwide.

It’s clear that honor codes fail to stop cheating on college campuses. In a 2005-2006 survey by academic-integrity expert Donald McCabe, half of students at honor-code schools reported that they had engaged in some form of cheating. A number of cheating scandals have been reported at honor-code schools: Dartmouth College, for example, charged 64 students with cheating in a religion course last fall resulting in one-term suspensions, according to the student newspaper. Granted, in McCabe’s survey, more students at schools without honor codes admitted to cheating – 68 percent. But given that it was a self-report survey, it’s worth noting that students at honor-code schools face more pressure to behave honorably, giving them more incentive to lie. Further, rates of overall cheating at honor-code schools rose slightly between the 1990-1991 and 2005-2006 school years, while they declined at no-code schools. As McCabe writes, the influence of honor codes “has eroded over the past two decades.”

With students feeling increased pressure to succeed and little obligation to turn in their peers, honor codes have fallen out of step with values of the modern college student. Today, earning an “A” is a greater motivator than being deemed “honorable.” As a result, punitive consequences — failing a class or facing a disciplinary hearing — are far more effective deterrents to cheating than abstract threats to honor, such as fear of being ostracized by one’s peers, according to a 2007 study by researchers at Midwestern State University.

Clauses that enforce a “moral obligation” to report cheating are outdated, too. Even students believe that tattling is no substitute for close supervision; in last year’s survey at Middlebury, 57 percent of respondents said they would be comfortable with professor-proctored exams, and 75 percent agreed proctoring would decrease cheating. After this spring’s computer-science scandal at Stanford, a handful of professors attending an open forum on the honor code argued in favor of proctored exams, according to the Stanford Daily, in part to alleviate the pressure on students to report one another.

Worst of all, honor codes can be rigid and heavy-handed, leaving little room for nuance or differentiation between fields of study or degrees of offense. Courses with direct “real world” applications — such as computer science — should freely encourage collaboration, adhering more to industry than to academic guidelines. As a journalism instructor, I have encouraged my students to work together in ways that other honor-code-bound professors would deem “unpermitted collaboration”— sharing story ideas and sources, for instance, or proofreading one another’s drafts.

Honor codes can be just as easily misapplied as egregiously flouted: They are used to punish well-meaning rule-followers for minor infractions yet, because they rely on reluctant student enforcers, allow flagrant violators to walk free. As a result, they breed confusion, mistrust and ill will on college campuses.

It’s time for honor codes to go the way of armored knights, family crests and other emblems of that quaint and naive concept of honor. Schools should find more concrete ways of demonstrating they are serious about upholding academic ethics: implementing more “cheat-proof” assignments, like in-class essays; collecting cellphones or shutting off the Internet during tests; and even, when the professor and subject matter warrant it, permitting the kind of close collaboration that students will soon find in the workplace. By forsaking the honor code, colleges might actually succeed in restoring a measure of integrity.

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